INQUIRE conference conclusions

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Raising standards through inquiry:

Professional development in the Natural Environment

The EU funded INQUIRE project has been developing and offering teacher training courses in 11 European countries over a period of three years with the aim of reinvigorating Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE) across Europe. INQUIRE has also aimed to link informal and formal education systems and to bridge the gap between researchers, practitioners and policy makers as well as setting up a European network of IBSE practitioners to support and encourage each other in implementing IBSE.

To mark these efforts the INQUIRE conference was held at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on 9-10th July, 2013. The two-day conference was organised to celebrate the project’s successes, reflect on its challenges and bring together researchers and professionals from schools and LOtC centres to discuss the current status and future of IBSE in Europe.

124 delegates from 14 countries gathered at the INQUIRE conference which stimulated discussions and reflections on IBSE.  The programme comprised four motivational keynote speeches, 60 workshops, paper and poster presentations and a networking session (click to read the abstracts). Following the conference, 35 delegates participated in an inspirational one-day tour to Oxford to learn about the education programme run at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and visit some of the city’s historical sights. Here we highlight some of the points that emerged during the conference linked to its six main themes:   

1. Inquiry-based science education outdoors

Responding to the need of teachers and educators, one of the main themes of the INQUIRE conference focused on practical examples of IBSE which can be implemented in an outdoor but also in a classroom environment.  Workshop and paper presentations showcased how IBSE activities can be both hands-on and minds-on.  An activity from Italy engages students in investigating where different fibres come from and encourages them to appreciate the importance of plants in the clothes they wear and the textiles they use in their everyday life. An activity from Spain gets students investigating the quality of the honey they eat, making them question whether the labeling on the jar is accurate.  Different techniques can be used to instigate inquiries. The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London as part of the EU project PATHWAY suggests using objects for exploration. Learners can practice their inquiry skills through games ranging from blindfolded Pictionary to creating a story about the life of an object. IBSE can be implemented through simple activities that are relatively quick according to the examples presented in the conference. Also importantly, plant-based activities that focus mainly on climate change and biodiversity loss can be linked to other curriculum subjects beyond science. An activity from Moscow looks at the symmetry of leaves, helping to develop students’ mathematical skills while an activity by Uni-Bremen looks at the food we consume and how environmental friendly our decisions are; enabling the development of students’ decision making and citizenship skills.

2.Reflective practice

Different strategies can be employed to stimulate teachers and educators’ reflection on their perceptions of IBSE and how they put it into practice. The process of reflection can be regarded as the ability to put our ego aside and, as if we were in a magical space, to see ourselves from an outsider’s perspective according to Ljuba Pencheva responsible for the INQUIRE course in Bulgaria. Along these lines, Bulgarian teachers and educators are encouraged to do just this using psychodrama group therapy, a strategy that gives them the opportunity to share their professional challenges and re-enact them as if they were happening in the ‘here and now’. In the UK, teachers as part of the PATHWAY project have been encouraged to reflect on their understanding of IBSE during a one-day workshop. Participants were asked to define IBSE and give examples from their practice, develop a list of criteria and use these to review IBSE lessons. This activity of reflection revealed that teachers and educators’ perception of IBSE is varied especially in relation to how much input a teacher should provide to students. Participants in theory support IBSE but also expressed their concerns in terms of logistics, the ‘how’ of implementing inquiry.

3.Professional learning communities

The idea of Professional learning communities is linked to the coined term Communities of Practice (CoP) (Lave and Wenger, 1991) which describes a group of people who through sharing information and experiences learn from each other and develop themselves professionally. A CoP established among teachers who work together to refine their teaching and who are also supported by academics or more experienced practitioners, appears to be a highly effective professional development approach in science education. Similarly European networks of teachers and educators use various activities and media to establish a learning community aiming to develop practices in the fields of IBSE, environmental and outdoor education. The GreeNET network through focus groups, seminars and summer schools connects more than 1000 teachers across Europe and aims to promote green careers by sharing best practices in environmental education and providing training. Museo delle Scienze in Italy has developed an information gateway i-CLEEN which supports the collaboration between science teachers and researchers in developing inquiry-based resources on climate and energy.  As part of the INQUIRE course in Austria teachers and educators were encouraged to extend their social network and support each other in developing their IBSE skills. Research showed that the participants had a ‘shared value and vision’ which was evident in the co-creation of IBSE resources. Participants’ initiative to work in small-groups demonstrated their ‘collective learning’. The course managers also supported the learning community by organising more frequent meetings for the course participants and pointing out that there is no single-way to implement IBSE. The interventions led to trainees’ increased social interactions and the sharing of a greater variety of knowledge and resources.

4.Evaluation of IBSE

Teachers, educators and academics recognize that the nature of IBSE poses many conceptual, logistic and technical challenges for student assessment. In addition to these arguments, INQUIRE course participants in the UK indicated that having to teach to a prescribed curriculum, or an examination mark scheme are barriers to applying IBSE. As a response to practitioners’ concerns Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have developed an outdoor IBSE activity which has proven to be successful in teaching simple field study techniques to students who investigate the distribution of plant species in a given area. The activity demonstrates the ability to facilitate inquiry-based learning for assessment against a tight examiner marking scheme such as the Advanced level student assessment prior to University entry. Apart from having concrete examples of how to assess IBSE activities, teachers and educators need to further develop their capacity in evaluation. During the INQUIRE course in Italy participants attended training that clarified the meaning and purpose of evaluation i.e. for both formative and summative methodologies and learned how to use a variety of techniques:  concept cartoons, forums, diaries, questionnaires, concept maps, portfolios of evidence, interviews and observations.

5.Students’ perspectives on IBSE

IBSE aims at enabling young people to be independent learners and follow their own interests in what they would like to learn. But what do young people actually learn when they participate in IBSE activities in school or at an LOtC site? At the Garden of Stairs of the University Botanic Garden in Oslo children learn through experience about the concepts of landscape, gravity and orientation. Children run up the hill, climb steps and design original stairs and through the educators’ stimulating questions they are engaged in discussions and formulate speculations and new questions: What happens to my body? Why is it easier to run down than to run up a hill?  What is the difference between hills and stairs? Children are able to understand and experience their environment whilst enjoying themselves, reacting spontaneously to tasks and being excited about what they learn. At the National Museum of Natural History and Science of Lisbon University young people as part of the project Natural Europe follow digital educational pathways i.e. on-line IBSE activities that integrate learning in the school and in the museum. During the assessment of the activities young people reported increased knowledge and interest in natural science through the use of digital tools and by participating in IBSE activities that bridge informal and formal education.  

6.Developing training courses in LOtC

The INQUIRE conference emphasised different aspects of planning and delivering successful teacher training on IBSE. One of the challenges for the providers of teacher professional development is disseminating information effectively and attracting the interest of potential trainees. In a World café session delegates of the conference brainstormed the best methods to promote the INQUIRE courses. It was suggested that it is important to get the support of policy makers and education authorities to promote the INQUIRE course e.g. by using their communication channels to disseminate information to teachers and educators and obtain funding. Face-to-face contacts but also the use of social media are both important actions for advertising a training course while a high profile individual might be also influential in terms of convincing practitioners to register for an INQUIRE course. Moreover the World Café session resulted in ideas for other actions that can be taken to encourage implementing IBSE across Europe such as providing support to teachers in the schools by encouraging them to share their experiences, introducing IBSE in the national curriculum, disseminating good practice through on-line platforms and offering IBSE experiences to families and the community.

Key congress thoughts

During the INQUIRE conference, teachers, educators and academics involved in IBSE training all shared their passion about implementing this approach and discussed the challenges of fully integrating this pedagogy into teaching practice. Posters, workshops and paper presentations demonstrated that there is no single recipe for applying IBSE but rather a variety of IBSE approaches that work in both school and LOtC sites. The keynote and closing speeches of the conference provided further stimulus for thinking and reflecting on IBSE, demonstrating that through providing experiences in an outdoor learning environment including gardening activities IBSE can have a positive impact on students’ achievement, motivation to learn and personal development. Teachers often report lack of training, time, and funding, and the fear of risk regarding children’s safety as barriers to teaching young people outdoors.  However it was clear that the most effective schools are those able to integrate LOtC into the school structures. The ‘real’ barriers to learning outside of the school classroom were highlighted as teachers’ views of the role of education and of effective pedagogy, teachers’ self-efficacy, teachers’ and school leaders’ commitment and the relationship between schools and providers .

The provision of outdoor activities and IBSE should not be regarded as an initiative undertaken by individuals in isolation. In order to ensure wider implementation of IBSE LOtC sites should establish collaborations with schools, educators should work closely with teachers, practitioners should work with researchers and the informal education sector should join forces with the formal sector. The INQUIRE project has demonstrated how it is possible to build these collaborations through a consortium of botanic gardens, natural history museums and universities who have been developing and running professional development courses. Botanic gardens and museums have also been proven to be excellent locations for training in IBSE because of their plant collections and their outdoor spaces and because of their expertise in plant science. Lastly, the legacy of the INQUIRE project expands beyond the provision of professional development courses to encompass achieving organisational change in botanic gardens and museums that have built up their expertise in IBSE and are currently integrating this approach within a whole spectrum of public engagement activities ranging from the interpretation signs and guided tours to school and adult education programmes. IBSE has the potential to foster inquiry minds within the wider public and should not be limited to meeting the needs of a particular audience.

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